Is it time to move to beamforming 802.11ac?

No, it’s not a drone. D-Link and Linksys launch two of the fastest Wi-Fi routers ever. And one certainly looks like it.

routers lead image

D-Link’s current 3.2 Gbps WiFi Router

Credit: D-Link

New, high-powered AC routers are proliferating. D-Link’s up-to 3.2 Gbps Wi-Fi device ($299 at Newegg) was alluded to in September, 2014, by D-Link’s Middle East & Africa division.

That DIR-890L AC3200 router then showed up on D-Link’s Canadian website at one point, and is now about to drop in here in the states after appearing at CES last week.

Linksys has also just unveiled a fastest-ever Wi-Fi router, the EA8500. Advance order pricing is $299 at the Linksys store. It’s not as pretty, but still fast, at up to 2.53 Gbps.

ASUS, with its already-out RT-AC87 ($264 at Amazon), and Netgear, with its 3.2 Gbps Nighthawk X6 ($277 at Amazon) round out this new pack.

Why bother?

Firstly, all of these routers use the newer AC wireless standard, which allows for standardized beamforming.

Beamforming is a big deal. The beamforming method of getting a signal out is where the signal is aimed directly at the mobile device, like a tablet, rather than somewhat haphazardly broadcasted, as is the case with older Wi-Fi. The device is telling the router where it is so that the router can direct the signal accurately. It makes for a more efficient signal.

Up until now, although some N routers did use mild beamforming, it was hit-or-miss whether a device would work with it because of a lack of standards.

D-Link calls its version of beamforming "Advanced AC SmartBeam beamforming," but the idea is that any device, like a phone, that's compatible with 802.11ac will utilize all 802.11ac beamforming from any router maker. The manufacturer's description simply indicates minor differences that have probably more to do with advertising materials than anything else.

Of course, this kind of beamforming only works if your device is compatible with AC in the first place. Newer devices are compatible. My Moto X phone is, for example, and later iPads are, but check your device specs.

The new routers will still work with non AC-compatible devices, like laptops, just not as quickly.

Antennas and radios

The usual Wi-Fi hindrances still come into play, even with this new gear, and they are the technical limitations with Wi-Fi. As always, 2.4 GHz travels further in a home or office, but it is more cluttered by interference. And 5 GHz is faster, but it can’t get through walls easily.

So, more and cleverer technology to manipulate the radios is better. These routers have the latest.

D-Link’s offering sports six high-gain antennas and three radios. The other routers all have sprouted external antennas and slapped-on radios.

In D-Link’s case, its simultaneous tri-banding of its three radios allows for up to 3200 Mbps across 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz combined. That’s made up of 600 Mbps on 2.4 GHz and 1300 Mbps plus 1300 Mbps on the 5 GHz frequencies. It uses two 5 GHz bands, one of which is geared toward older dual-band devices, and one for new AC devices.

The others have variations on that theme.

Essentially, all of these routers are going to be faster than the last generation. However, the Mbps numbers that the marketing department proffer can all be considered a bit mumbo-jumbo, because some devices won’t use the faster radios, among other reasons. For example, older laptops will still only obtain up to 600 Mbps on 2.4 GHz.

So reckon that you’ll need AC-compatible devices to take full advantage of AC, and you’ll need 5 GHz band-compatible devices, like the newer smartphones and iPads, to use the 5 GHz radios.

One SSID

In addition to standardized beamforming, there’s one other new feature that will also make an upgrade worth it:

Some new routers, like the D-Link for example, now wrap all of the SSIDs into one designator. The SSID is the name of the network that floats around the room—it’s the thing you sign on to. This wrapping means that the end user shouldn’t have to manually choose between bands, radios and networks—the router chooses it for him or her.

Now, if we could make the thing fly…

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

To comment on this article and other Network World content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter stream.
Must read: Hidden Cause of Slow Internet and how to fix it
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.